Why Hillary Clinton needs to get personal
Time to show your wounds, Hillary
Hillary Clinton is going to get one more chance to reintroduce herself to the American people. As I explained in my previous column in this series, she needs to use this opportunity to remind voters of the version of her they like best. Unfortunately for Clinton, the version they like best is the Hillary who is wounded, suffering — the Hillary who doesn't quit when she is losing. That's a person Americans are willing to trust — and she needs that trust to make the rest of her pitch.
I said in that column that I didn't expect Clinton to like my advice that she needs to show her vulnerability, her wounds, in order to get a hearing for her pitch. So it behooves me, if I want to my advice to be taken seriously, to anticipate her objections. So, with the help of my handy Hillary Emulator, here's an imagined dialogue with the candidate about the strategic case for Hillary getting personal.
This is a waste of time. My team has already explained to me that the candidate hardly matters. Economic fundamentals, demographics, and organization will determine the outcome of the election. Just ask Nate Silver.
We'll talk another time about how to tell whether your team is telling you what you want to believe — and whether Nate Silver believes what you attribute to him. Meantime, can I introduce you to President Al Gore?
Gore had a stronger economic tailwind behind him, and was running to succeed a more popular president than Barack Obama. He was plainly better-prepared and more qualified for the office than his opponent. And yet he was only able to battle him to a tie. The quality of a candidate — and of a campaign — matters. And it matters more for you than for Donald Trump because he's the candidate of change.
But we both know that I'm not a natural politician, and I'm certainly not a good actor. Why on earth would you want me to do this?
To quote Shakespeare, “nothing pleaseth but rare accidents." Precisely because it's so out of character, it'll have an outsized impact. Remember New Hampshire in 2008?
Okay, fine — tearing up a little won over the women of New Hampshire. But these women are with me already. They aren't who I need to motivate.
Look, if you motivate the Obama coalition to turn out as it did in 2012, and Trump turns out the Romney coalition, then you'll will win by a bigger margin than Obama did in his reelection. So you need to prepare for and counter Trump's efforts to expand his coalition. His target is whites without college degrees, a contingent that leaned Republican in 2012, and leaned strongly towards Trump in the primaries.
You like Nate Silver? His forecasting website, FiveThirtyEight, has produced a handy tool to help estimate just how big a swing would be required to overcome the demographic advantage the Obama coalition holds over the Romney coalition. Using it, I estimate that a 7-percent swing towards the Republicans from this demographic would win the presidency for Trump with no increase in turnout. A 5-percent bump in turnout in this demographic would mean Trump would need only a 6-percent swing to achieve victory.
Listen, you know how Trump is winning those voters. Don't you think Trump's blatant bigotry will win me bigger margins — and turnout — among non-white voters? Isn't that the counter?
Well, there isn't really a lot of room to improve on Obama with African-American voters, but yes, I expect a bump in both turnout and partisan lean among Hispanics and Asians. But there's an asymmetry between those groups and Trump's downscale whites. A comparable move towards the Democrats by Hispanic and Asian voters — bumping turnout by 5 percent and margins by 6 percent — would swing the election back your way, but the swing would only be half as large as the swing towards Trump. The more successful Trump is with a strategy of turning out downscale whites, the harder it will be for you to overcome it with a strategy of turning out racial minorities.
That's why you need to make Trump a distrusted source with a core segment of his coalition where he is vulnerable, and where you could make inroads.
From the Romney coalition, I strongly suspect that Trump's weak link is going to be married white women. Romney won married women by 53 percent in 2012 — and he won married white women by a larger margin. Trump's core pitch is aimed at a white demographic that has, overall, a less-stable marital history, and is aimed primarily at men within that demographic. There is ample material in Trump's personality and personal history that could be used to alienate the married women — including more religious women (especially Mormons) — who are a core part of the GOP coalition.
So then shouldn't I focus on defining Donald Trump? He's the new flavor — and most people don't realize how terrible he is.
Well, let's consider how that strategy could backfire if deployed in isolation. Let's say you run a campaign focused on the bigotry of some of Trump's core supporters, and on the bigoted things Trump himself has said on many occasions. That might well motivate those voters, but Trump's response — "Hey, I'm not a racist! I'm friends with Mike Tyson; I hired Lynn Patton! You're just attacking me because I'm not politically correct!" — might motivate his core demographic equally well, depending on which candidate is viewed as more honest.
Moreover, your attacks actually feed Trump's counter-attack ("you're attacking me because I'm politically incorrect!"). So the back and forth could wind up building up his narrative, and his appeal, more than yours. You risk defining yourself as the candidate primarily concerned about proper speech and decorum, while Trump defines himself as someone with no time for such niceties because he's too busy working to make America great again.
I am not arguing that you shouldn't attack Trump. But you need to think a step or two down the road. If people don't trust you, then Trump will be in a good position to deflect the actual substance of your attacks, and make the fact that you're attacking him the real issue. You need to win your audience's trust first.
But if I need married white women, shouldn't I be presenting myself as their champion? Who wants to back someone vulnerable and weak? Women support women who roar!
Oh, yes, definitely. You should keep reminding them that you're a woman, making history, in the face of unfair attacks from men. You should remind them that you are strongly pro-choice and favor a broad interpretation of Title IX. You should stand with Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham, and you should all sing Helen Reddy together. Right?
Let me make a suggestion. Have Huma put up a picture of Marcia Clark on the inside of the door to your Brooklyn office, to serve as a constant reminder of how to lose a sure thing by misreading your audience. Clark, as you no doubt recall, was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She thought she had a slam-dunk case and a jury eager to hear it, having stacked it with women who she figured would sympathize with the victim. She failed to account for the possibility that, as African-American women, they might have split sympathies — and that the more she painted Simpson as a cold-blooded killer, and the more she harped on the innocence of his white ex-wife, the more she was pushing their sympathies in the wrong direction, toward standing up for one of their men against a white woman's defamation.
The 2016 election could present you with a similar problem — even without the explicit racial polarities. Say you focus your energy on attacking Trump and his supporters for being misogynists. You'll have plenty of fuel for such an attack — but how will the women whose husbands are interested in Trump react? Are they going to let you get between them and their husbands? Or are they going to rally to their defense, and against this insulting, elitist outsider?
To get inside that defense, you can't rely on female solidarity, or on women's issues. Any voter for whom that kind of pitch has a strong appeal is already actively supporting you in the primary, and will certainly be with you in the general election. The women you need to reach are precisely those who are less-amenable to this kind of appeal. They are women who would consider voting Republican — who may have voted Republican in previous elections, whatever reservations or frustrations they might have had with that party.
And let me tell you, they certainly have frustrations with that party. Remember, Trump defeated the entire GOP by breaking just about every conservative taboo. He’s the vehicle for discontent with the party that you oppose. That should be a golden opportunity for you. If the electorate were looking for the best-prepared candidate to implement an agenda of protecting American jobs, of course they’d pick you — and if they wanted you to be tougher on trade or on crime, you would give them what they want.
But it isn’t about the issues, or about experience. None of that matters if people believe that Trump is a straight-talking independent man who will put America first, while you are a cosmopolitan insider eager to do the bidding of special interests so as to win and retain power. You need to turn that around, and get people to believe that you’re a flawed human being who went into the business of politics in order to accomplish something, while your opponent is a fraud and a charlatan who has accomplished almost none of what he claims, and will do nothing of what he promises.
To make that case, you need to make an emotional connection, which means a personal one. A revelation of common experience that enables them to trust your judgment. That’s what the reintroduction is all about.
Look, I have another meeting in a minute. What do you suggest?
Well, let's see. You need to make yourself into a human being, who has made real, painful personal sacrifices for something more important than yourself and your personal needs.
And you need to convince people — married women in particular — that you know something about trusting a smooth-talking, charismatic man who claims to care about you and to be looking out for you needs, but who in the end always seems to care most about his own gratification, and leaves you to clean up the mess he made.
Gee. What personal experience could you possibly bring up that would help you do both of those things?
I suspect you know where I'm going.